Within the next 24 hours, New York State’s 2019 legislative session will grind to an end, closing the book on five months of remarkably effective progressive law-making. With all branches of state government now firmly under Democratic control, the state has passed a spate of laws essential to protecting vulnerable New Yorkers, from the Reproductive Health Act, which codifies Roe v. Wade protections into state law, to a suite of sweeping rent regulations and tenant protections. (Others, like the state’s single-payer health-care bill, continue to languish, despite broad public support.)
Now, if all goes as expected, the legislature will pass, and the governor is expected to sign a groundbreaking piece of climate legislation. It has been described—by Robert Reich and Heather McGhee in a 2016 Nation article—as “the most progressive climate-equity policy we’ve seen.”
Originally known as the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), this bill, which is now called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, represents New York State’s—and the nation’s—best hope for meaningful climate action. Activists describe it as a climate, jobs, and justice bill that would make it New York’s goal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 100 percent over 1990 levels by the year 2050 and create thousands of jobs over the next decade. It would also require that a significant portion of the benefits of state spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs be invested in “front-line” communities—those facing the worst effects of climate change.
The bill nearly didn’t make it to the finish line, held up in good measure by the governor’s foot-dragging throughout much of the session. (Earlier this month, he warned during a radio interview that the CCPA would require “a massive transformation” of the state’s economy, and one he felt it would be unwise to rush.) But representatives from his office spent Father’s Day hammering out a deal with members of the Assembly and Senate. The following morning, Cuomo announced on WAMC, “I believe we have an agreement. I believe it’s going to pass.”
What passes will likely be similar to the version of the CCPA originally proposed by legislators but, the most recent version of the bill suggests, with less investment in disadvantaged communities and less ambitious targets for decarbonization. Rather than requiring that 40 percent of state climate funds be invested in disadvantaged communities, as originally written, the amended bill sets a floor of 35 percent, with a “goal” for disadvantaged communities to receive 40 percent “of overall benefits of spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs, projects or investments” in a range of areas. And, rather than setting goals of reducing emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2030 and 0 percent by 2050, the amended bill makes it “a goal of the state of New York to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all anthropogenic sources 100% over 1990 levels by the year 2050”—and it sets “an incremental target of at least a 40 percent reduction in climate pollution by the year 2030.”
Still, even with these 11th-hour changes, “the core values of the CCPA remain intact,” Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said in an e-mail. “It has the best environmental justice provisions in the country and strong worker protections and wage standards. New York will finally have a law that does all this and moves the state’s entire economy off of fossil fuels by 2050 at the latest.”
Stephan Edel, project director for New York Working Families, was more tempered in his enthusiasm, if still upbeat. “The bill retains the strongest emissions reduction standards in the country, so I don’t want to imply it is not a huge victory, given that the Governor until this year opposed any legislation related to this,” he said in an e-mail. However, he added, the gradual weakening of certain language “makes enforcement harder.”
Compared to the original version of the bill, which passed the Assembly three times, he said, “we are deeply concerned that changes in the legislative language weakened the bill’s original intent to require investing resources to directly benefit vulnerable communities. Rather than a forceful mandate directing specific funds, this seems to have eroded to an unenforceable point.” He also expressed concerns about labor standards: “Although the bill [that is expected to pass] includes a nod towards prevailing wage, the Governor’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act removes mandates that additional standards be applied.” The changes have been relatively minor from version to version, said Edel, “but they add up to weaken enforcement of the equity provisions central to a real climate justice approach and give Governor Cuomo even more power over implementation than the prior versions.”
Assuming it passes as expected, the CCPA will still rightly be hailed as a progressive victory, and everyone involved will be eager to seize credit. But now that Albany is controlled by Democrats ostensibly on the same team, it’s more critical than ever to ask: Who helped push it over the finish line—and who stood in its way?
The CCPA was first introduced in the Assembly in 2016 by Assembly Member Steve Englebright. It passed in three consecutive sessions, only to languish in New York’s previously Republican-controlled state Senate. While it is not, in fact, the most radical climate bill proposed in the Assembly—it would give the state 30 years to wean itself off fossil fuels, despite the fact that leading climate scientists have warned we have only 11 years to forestall the worst effects of climate change—it has the broadest support. NY Renews, an energetic coalition of over 170 environmental-justice, labor, and community groups, has pressed tirelessly for the bill’s passage since 2016. The bill has also earned the support of federal lawmakers as dissimilar as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Chuck Schumer. State Senator Kevin Parker, a co-sponsor, has described it as “a first pragmatic step” to combating climate change.
Yet, rather than joining most New York Democrats in supporting the CCPA, Governor Cuomo has, until recently, done a great deal to impede its progress. Earlier this year, he introduced his own initiative, the Climate Leadership Act (CLA), as part of the budget process. The CLA cribbed the CCPA’s language and structure, while scaling back its ambitions, calling for a carbon-neutral electricity sector by 2040, rather than a 100 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 across all sectors of the economy. (Cuomo is committed to achieving carbon neutrality, a spokesperson for the governor told me, but “carbon-free” is too rigid of a standard. He encouraged me to consider the implications: Can no one eat meat? Do we have to get rid of cows?)
The CLA would also have excluded the requirement that 40 percent of climate funds be invested in disadvantaged communities, and established a nine-member Climate Action Council controlled by the governor rather than a 25-member council with members appointed by the legislature.
The legislature ultimately rejected the CLA during budget negotiations, and the governor did not reintroduce it as a stand-alone bill. But rather than throw his support behind the CCPA, he continued to undermine it, suggesting in June that it is unworkably overambitious: “What I don’t want to do,” he told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, “is give people a political placebo where we put forth dates and goals that we cannot make.”
In particular, state officials who work on the governor’s environmental policies pushed back on the part of the CCPA that would make it easier for New Yorkers to sue the state for failing to enforce or comply with the law. The governor, one official told me, prefers to implement policies that are well enough designed that using litigation is not a primary tool of enforcement.
Few people I spoke with were willing to speculate on the record as to why Cuomo wasn’t originally on board with the CCPA. One legislative staffer told me his boss was afraid the governor might punish her in negotiations over the state’s rent laws if she spoke candidly about the climate bill.
But many suggested that, in the words of his gubernatorial primary rival Cynthia Nixon, “As long as Cuomo continues taking money from corporate polluters, he won’t lead NY toward a clean energy future.”
The governor’s ties to the oil-and-gas industry are notable. Cuomo’s former communications director Richard Bamberger is now a lobbyist registered to represent such clients as Exelon, which owns and operates plants that rely on fossil-fuel and other sources, and Williams Companies, an energy company that owns and operates pipelines. Tonio Burgos, who has given $85,800 to Cuomo personally and $201,800 through a lobbying firm that bears his name, has lobbied for Williams Companies, National Grid, and NRG. Cuomo’s executive secretary, Melissa DeRosa, is the daughter of Giorgio DeRosa, who represents the American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil-industry trade group. And, between 2015 and January 2018, the governor took nearly $113,000 from oil-and-gas companies, businesses with ties to the industry, and Con Edison executives.
At the same time, Cuomo, among others, has faced significant pressure from friends in the business community. On June 11, the Business Council of New York State, New York’s largest business lobbying group, sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to rethink support for the CCPA, which it claimed will drive “hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of their employees out of New York State.” The Business Council, which is backed by 15 fossil-fuel companies and four fossil-fuel-industry trade groups, including the American Petroleum Institute, has endorsed Cuomo three times, including in his last race.
In response to a question about whether the governor had been influenced by concerns raised or donations made by the oil-and-gas industry, his senior adviser Rich Azzopardi e-mailed the following: “A strong opinion informed by a weak command of the facts is a heck of a combination.… Spare me the tired talking points from self-appointed advocates…. No Governor has fought to protect our natural resources more than Governor Cuomo.”
Cuomo’s record on climate change has certainly been solid, if not, until now, nation-leading, as he has frequently claimed. (California’s record is arguably better, and California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington have all already passed bills to get 100 percent of electricity from carbon-free sources.) He told Brian Lehrer he considers climate change “the most pressing issue of our time,” and he has taken executive action to address it, including co-founding the US Climate Alliance with former California governor Jerry Brown and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to commit to honoring Paris Agreement targets in those states after President Trump withdrew from the agreement. He also directed New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation to require state power plants to meet new emissions limits and signed a bill to ban offshore drilling in state waters.
Still, the real heroes of the fight for the CCPA are the hundreds of protesters who stormed the state Capitol on a recent Tuesday in June, and the dozens who staged a “die-in” outside the governor’s office to illustrate the consequences of failing to pass climate legislation. They’re the people who showed up early in the morning to advocate for the CCPA on the steps of City Hall before a May hearing on the bill. People like Luz Velez, a member of PUSH Buffalo, a community group that supports the legislation, who traveled from Buffalo to New York City to share testimony about the cost to her health of exposure to diesel-truck emissions and other types of pollution. Velez said she moved to Buffalo in 1980; by 2006, she was seriously ill with recurring respiratory and lung infections. The CCPA, she said, was necessary to protect the health of communities like hers. “I’m not making any money off of this,” she said pointedly of corporate polluters, “but somebody is.”
Cuomo is already loudly claiming credit for passing the CCPA. On WCNY on Tuesday morning, he declared the bill “first” on his to-do list (as of June 4, it didn’t even make his top 10). But it’s everyday New Yorkers—and a few good legislators, some of whom have been fighting on this front for years—who made him do it.
“We didn’t stop fracking in the back halls of Albany,” Assembly Member Barbara Lifton pointed out at the May hearing. “We stopped fracking because 200,000 New Yorkers weighed in.” At the end of the day, “It takes a lot of people to change major government policy.”